Let me get something out of the way. Metal Gear Solid is one of the best titles you've probably never played. But, I would consider it mandatory viewing if you have even a passing interest in modern espionage literature or stealth action games.
You heard me. Do you like Dishonored? How about Assassin's Creed? Mayhaps a bit of Splinter Cell? Well, then you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage and make an offering at the foot of the Metal Gear Solid mountain.
At the time of Metal Gear Solid's release, the modern video game industry was still in its infancy. Konami wasn't the huge waste of space it is now, no-one knew who Hideo Kojima was and the Playstation was locked in a battle for supremacy with the Nintendo 64. We're a long way from the genesis of video games, but we're also nowhere near the 'maturity' of the modern video game industry. To a certain extent, I don't think a game like Metal Gear Solid could be made today. I don't think a director like Hideo Kojima would be given the creative freedom and independence required to make such a seminal title. But in the 90s, he did.
And video games are better for it.
The plot of Metal Gear Solid starts with an agent, "Solid Snake", infiltrating an installation filled with genetically engineered bad guys, headed up by FOXHOUND, a group of creatively-named bad guys whose names mirror Snake's own. A briefing voice (Colonel Campbell, Snake's handler) informs you that the bad guys have access to nuclear weapons and it's up to Snake to stop FOXHOUND from launching a weapon of mass destruction against the western world. So Metal Gear Solid's themes are prescient, to say the least.
Though Metal Gear Solid is technically a sequel to the Metal Gear games, there are only a handful of references. There's also a convenient dossier on the critical plot points of the previous games, so you can catch up either before or after. Or both, if you're slow like me.
As you progress through the story, the stakes get higher as you learn more about FOXHOUND's plan. You begin to understand there's so much more at risk than a nuclear strike. Of course, you're not going it alone - you have access to a scooby gang of support staff, who you access through a communications device called a 'codec'. Though the information they provide you is normally useless, sometimes there are interesting story snippets or even easter eggs. There's even a clever little moment where you are told to look at the back of the CD case (or in my case, the virtual console menu) to find a particular codec number to dial. There are certainly plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments and some definitely inappropriate (at least by today's standards) banter.
No doubt several of Metal Gear Solid's more 'adult' interactions would not be featured in a modern game. Fortunately, we have it forever to cherish.
Without wishing to spoil (because you are going to want to experience this title for yourself), MGS' story is well written, compelling and deep. It fits right in alongside a Clancy or Mills novel and perfectly captures themes like espionage, modern perceptions of terrorism and the consequences of modern armed conflict. I often found myself playing on in spite of the rubbish controls (more on that later) because I wanted to see the next part of the story play out. The characters, even the villains (looking at you, Sniper Wolf) are well constructed and are far from the stereotype of "evil for the sake of evil." Some characters have the true mark of excellent writing, in that they make the player sympathetic to their plight - as you learn, more than one member of FOXHOUND is a victim of circumstance.
So the story is good - but let's talk gameplay. It's a game from 1998 and it plays like it. It didn't help that I was playing on virtual console and didn't realise I could switch to analogue controls until about halfway through - after I had struggled through three or four absurd boss fights. From there it went from unplayable to a bit mangled. I am willing to give the game a pass due to its age, but also that at the time, Metal Gear Solid was completely new in what it was trying to do, which was blend first person and third person - future titles tell us that is not easy to do. When playing it I could see ideas implemented and refined by future genres of stealth action games. Which is part of why I consider MGS mandatory viewing. Because Metal Gear Solid built the box inhabited by so many excellent (and less excellent) modern titles.
It does not help the Metal Gear Solid's case that you're not told how the game plays. There's a lot of learning by doing. Or in my case, doing, dying, learning and resetting. It does not help the game's case that every time you die, an audio track with someone screaming Snake's name plays. Totally not grating, it's fine.
Whilst we're on the complain train, the combat is a little bit rubbish. That you're not really told what the controls are doesn't help. Unarmed you have a nonlethal punch attack that lays guards out for what feels like 2/5ths of nothing, or you can grab them from behind and put them to sleep - provided you know how to do that. I went the entire game without knowing how to do that, due to not being told and it not being listed in the controls.
The shooting isn't much better - either you have to point Snake in the direction of the enemy (a tough thing to do with a d-pad made only slightly easier with analogue controls) or you can hold the 'aim' button, which moves you to a clunky unresponsive first-person view. If you have infinite time to accomplish a goal, it's usable but some later bossfights rely on quick and deft implementations of first person aiming, which goes about as well as can be expected.
But amazingly, none of this is anywhere near close to a dealbreaker.
An absolute highlight of Metal Gear Solid is its boss battles. Here, Kojima's willingness to innovate and outside the box thinking pays serious dividends. No two encounters are the same and each one feels different and unique. One of the first battles involves a pistol duel, dancing around an elevator shaft whilst a hostage wired up with explosives is in the middle. Another encounter involves a game of hide and seek in a cold-storage area against a maniac with a chain gun. Two completely different encounters, same control scheme. There's even a meta encounter which breaks the fourth wall in an unexpected way and challenged how I thought about video games. Though the awful controls make each encounter tremendously challenging, somehow their crazy difficulty makes them more memorable. Go figure.
There's also one of the greatest manfights in video game (and probably modern media) history. So that's nice.
Outside of boss battles, MGS' gameplay has serious depth. There's a wide array of items, implemented in creative ways. It helps to give the game its "ultra-modern" technological feel. You'll use night vision googles, minesweepers, a broad range of weapons, each with its own unique application and of course, the now-iconic range of cardboard boxes for sneaking about. I feel obliged to mention I didn't use them because there's a lot of showing and no telling.
In case I haven't made it clear enough, I absolutely recommend playing Metal Gear Solid. For so many reasons. A clever and compelling story with deep characters, organic tension and chock-full of memorable moments. Surrounded by innovative gameplay and mechanics, only let down by rubbish controls. And boss battles that really haven't been matched, except by encounters later in the series. And of course, there's that whole "built the box" thing. If you like modern stealth action, you owe it yourself to add this title to your mind library.
Catch you next time,
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